Hasitha Fernando revisits Child’s Play on its 35th anniversary…
All Hallow’s Eve may be done and dusted but today brings the anniversary of an iconic horror flick. This is none other than Child’s Play, which debuted 35 years ago amidst controversy and protests, but also was able to successfully launch a franchise that continues to endure to this day. As with any movie, Child’s Play also possesses some interesting behind-the-scenes drama and production chaos, so let’s dive right in and look back at what happened all those years ago, during the making of this cult-classic of horror…
Inspiration for the story’s key concepts came from multiple sources
Don Mancini first conceived of the “killer doll” concept whilst studying as a film major at UCLA, according to an interview with Mental Floss. His initial idea was that it should be a satire on the 80s consumer culture focusing on child merchandising and toy marketing, but as time progressed this notion morphed into a more horror centric narrative.
Being a huge fan of horror, Mancini drew from multiple sources when crafting his own version of a “killer doll”. Two major inspirations came from the 1975 television film Trilogy of Horror and its segment “Amelia”, and the other was courtesy of The Twilight Zone episode titled “Living Doll”. In addition to those, the 1978 psychological horror drama Magic, Tobe Hooper’s Poltergeist and the character of Freddy Kreuger from A Nightmare on Elm Street were also cited as notable influences by Mancini. The screenwriter’s estranged relationship with his father and his feelings of alienation as a gay man were also worked into the script.
Chucky’s character design was based on a real-life doll line
The My Buddy doll line was a toy brand made by Hasbro in 1985 with the intention of making dolls appeal to younger boys and teach them about caring for their friends. At the time the introduction of the doll line was considered both an innovative and controversial move, but whatever the case maybe, it certainly became a source of inspiration for Mancini when he was creating Chucky.
“What I told [designer] Kevin Yagher was, I wanted something similar to a My Buddy doll. I described “Buddy” in my original script, now “Chucky”, as wearing red-buttoned overalls, red sneakers, striped sweater, with red hair, blue eyes, and freckles. Kevin went off and sketched many designs of Chucky, until the final was picked. Yagher then built the first doll from those sketches and my details.” It’s difficult to say if Chucky’s creation had an impact on the doll line’s sales or not, but what’s known is that by the 1990s Hasbro discontinued production and Playskool took over from there.
The original script’s title and story underwent multiple changes
The title for Mancini’s original script bore a rather innocuous name called Batteries Not Included. However, this title was changed immediately once Mancini became aware that a similarly named sci-fi comedy, heavily influenced by E.T. and executive produced by Steven Spielberg himself, was in production. The script was then re-titled Blood Buddy, but that too was renamed to Child’s Play to avoid unnecessary copyright conflicts with the My Buddy doll line. The title Child’s Play too nearly got altered, to avoid confusion with Sidney Lumet’s horror film of the same name, but Mancini and co. decided to stick on with it and thank God for that.
Mancini’s original script underwent a few revisions once it was purchased by United Artists, with the help of screenwriter John Lafia. The character of Andy was re-written in a more sympathetic light by Lafia, and the concept of Chucky being a doll filled with fake blood was dropped in favor of Charles Lee Rey’s villainous soul being transferred to a toy doll following his execution in the electric chair. This too was changed later on, and a supernatural angle was added during re-writes.
Chucky’s full name was derived from the names of three notorious serial killers
Co-writer John Lafia was the one who thought of the name “Chucky” and his many catchphrases. Lafia felt that calling the killer doll “Charlie” sounded too dated and when he was out walking one day the name “Chucky” randomly popped into his mind and he immediately realized that it was a better fit. Chucky’s full name in the movie, however, was Charles Lee Ray which was an amalgamation of the names of three notorious serial killers – Charles Manson, Lee Harvey Oswald and James Earl Ray.
John Lithgow & Gary Oldman were rumoured to be considered for Chucky’s role
Brad Dourif was an up-and-coming actor pursuing community theater when filmmaker Milos Forman spotted the young creative’s talent and cast him as Billy Bibbit in One Flew Over the Cuckoo’s Nest. Dourif’s performance was so good that he ended up being nominated for Best Supporting Actor at the 48th Oscar ceremony held in 1976. However, what Dourif became more famous for was for a contribution he made a decade later in a film called Child’s Play. But at one point the role of playing Charles Lee Ray and voicing Chucky nearly went to veteran actor John Lithgow, until director Tom Holland changed his mind and cast Dourif after working with him in 1987’s Whoopi Goldberg vehicle Fatal Beauty. Gary Oldman was also rumored to be on the running for Chucky’s role early on.
Many acclaimed directors were considered for the gig
When United Artists procured Mancini’s script studio president Tony Thomopoulous and MGM/UA communications Chairman Lee Rich saw the IP’s inherent potential as a long-running franchise. Because of this, from the get-go, the studio wanted experienced hands to helm their first installment of the series. Some of the people considered for the gig were critically acclaimed filmmakers such as William Friedkin whole helmed The French Connection, The Empire Strikes Back’s Irvin Kershner and Robert Wise who was responsible was such genre hit films as West Side Story and The Day the Earth Stood Still. In the end Holland was hired for the project, on Spielberg’s personal recommendation based on work he’d done on the anthology TV show Amazing Stories.
Bringing Chucky to life was no easy task
The movie employed various ingenious ways to bring Chucky to life – including radio-controlled animatronics operated by up to nine puppeteers, extras of short stature, and child actors. The crew created multiple animatronic versions of the killer doll such as, a flailing tantrum Chucky, a walking Chucky, and a stationary Chucky. For the closeup shots of the doll’s face, its facial expressions were realized through a remote-control device connected to a rig that captured the facial movements of a puppeteer. For some scenes director Tom Holland used short-statured actors and children such as Ed Gale and Alex Vincent’s sister Ashley with forced perspective sets like in Lord of the Rings.
Disastrous test screenings & creative differences
Prior to its debut a two-hour rough cut was screened to select audiences at a test screening by the studio. And the response by them was less than savory, with many handing out negative reviews by the conclusion of the test screening. Mancini and executive producer David Kirschner had clashed with director Holland through production regarding Chucky’s amount of screentime, suggesting a more of a “less is more” approach like that of Jaws or Alien, but Holland disagreed. As a result, Mancini and Kirshner took matters into their own hands and decided to edit out around 25 minutes of footage featuring Chucky, which led to an incensed Holland departing production.
Mancini and Kirshner were also of the opinion that using Jessica Walter’s voice was a wrong choice as it wasn’t menacing enough. Holland had initially cast the Play Misty for Me star to voice Chucky on the basis that Mercedes McCambridge had successfully voiced the demon Pazuzu in The Exorcist. This unfortunate situation arose because Dourif was unavailable to record Chucky’s voice due to a prior film commitment. Following this misfire Dourif re-recorded Chucky’s lines once he became available which resolved that particular conundrum, but more problems were brewing in the horizon.
Protests were staged against the film prior to its release
Yep, that’s right. Large crowds of protesters formed at the entrance of MGM calling for a ban of the film, because these people were of the opinion that the movie would incite violence in children. This disturbed producer Kirshner somewhat, but his assistant Jeffrey Hilton was able to have a word with the leader of the protest and dissipate the angry crowd without much incident. But even later on, the film series continued to be plagued by baseless accusations of promoting violence in children. 1991’s Child’s Play 3 was cited as the “inspiration” for two murders that took place in the UK between December 1992 and February 1993.
Box office success, solid reviews & the birth of a franchise
MGM/UA made a controversial decision to not release Child’s Play during Halloween, instead opting to debut it closer to the Veterans Day weekend. But it was a risky move that paid off in spades because the horror flick went on to rake in $ 6 million during its opening weekend and collect a worldwide box-office of $44.2 million, on a production budget of $ 9million. These were impressive numbers and Child’s Play became United Artist’s second highest-grossing film of 1988 following Rain Man.
Critics were usually dismissive of horror films at that time but surprisingly quite a few top critics had nothing but good things to say about Child’s Play. Roger Ebert gave the film 3 out of 4 stars, calling it a “cheerfully energetic horror film” while Caryn James of The New York Times praised it as “a clever, playful thriller,” adding, “It’s the deft wit and swift editing that keeps us off guard, no matter how predictable the plot.”
The raving success of the original meant that this was just the start of a potential franchise and sure enough the first installment was followed by six sequels and a reboot film of the same name. The recent most addition to this ever-growing franchise was the 2021 Syfy TV show Chucky, created by Mancini which served as a follow-up to Cult of Chucky. According to The Hollywood Reporter, the show was among the top 10 dramas in cable television that was popular amongst adults of the 18 to 49 age group in 2022.
What are your thoughts on Child’s Play and the subsequent franchise? Let us know on our social channels @FlickeringMyth…
Hasitha Fernando is a part-time medical practitioner and full-time cinephile. Follow him on Twitter via @DoctorCinephile for regular updates on the world of entertainment.